Exhausted from more than a decade of counterinsurgency, it would be easy for the United States to focus on naval Fleet actions in the Pacific, but our national security requires nation-building to remain part of a broader joint strategy.
Nation-building remains a dirty word among many politicians, military officers, and defense experts alike. As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush expressed his concern, stating “Let me tell you what else I’m worried about: I’m worried about an opponent who uses nation-building and the military in the same sentence.”1 Many of today’s high-level politicians deride it as well. Some even deny that it is central to our current missions in the Middle East or assert that it is something we should focus on at home rather than abroad. Most uniformed commanders will speak to it only under the guise of stability operations.
None of this changes the fact that, historically, building nations has been a critical mission of our armed forces in general and our Navy in particular. One need look no further than the work done by scholars like Jeremi Suri and Robert Kagan to dispel the myth “that nation-building is something new in American foreign policy, a departure from the good old days of simply killing the bastards.”2 In fact, it has been a core mission for more than two centuries, and some of the world’s greatest naval leaders have done it well while others, to their nation’s detriment, have pushed it off exclusively to other government agencies.
Effective nation-building operations—from rudimentary military-to-military engagements aimed at fostering professional foreign militaries to the establishment of post-conflict, full-scale military governments—have been critical to our national interest. Proactive civil-military efforts often make the difference between preventing and fighting wars. They are also almost always necessary to cement long-term strategic success after hard-fought battles are won. With our nation exhausted from counterinsurgency and appropriately looking to pivot west, our Navy could easily settle back into our historical comfort zone of focusing on the execution of “sweeping Fleet actions across the Pacific.”3 In doing so we would abandon history’s hard-learned strategic lessons that we have just begun to relearn in the post-9/11 era and risk becoming unwittingly enamored of more conventional concepts like Air-Sea Battle. Such conventional approaches—reminiscent of our military’s post-Vietnam fixation on the AirLand Battle—will at best yield brilliant tactical victories marred by too little strategic benefit.
Instead, our nation’s security demands that we accept nation-building operations as an integral part of a much broader joint strategy. Our capabilities, training, and professional-development efforts must be sufficient to execute the full range of naval operations to strengthen responsible governance in key regions. Although this must be a “whole-of-government” approach, it must also be a core military mission, because history tells us that, absent military leadership, the odds for success are almost completely diminished. The good news is, as Alfred Thayer Mahan once pointed out, this type of nation-building acumen was then, and remains today, a perennial characteristic of a successful navy.4
The military governments that kicked off the Marshall and MacArthur plans offer a gold standard for how the military can drive reforms of relatively modern post-war societies such as Germany and Japan. The nation-building histories of the Royal and U.S. navies, however, offer a much better blueprint for spreading governance, strengthening governments, and if necessary, transforming tribal societies into more stable nations. Some maritime strategists, who long to center their ideas on a misinterpreted Mahanian quest for decisive naval battles (a.k.a Trafalgar), continually miss Mahan’s larger point. Mahan’s genius lay not in his ability to articulate some new, profound principles of war at sea, but rather in his brilliant explanation of how limited uses of national power—namely the maritime elements—could be used to influence history writ large.
Many forget that Mahan advocated seizing command of the seas only as a means to an end; namely, the exercise of a benign maritime imperialism to create and expand U.S. access to and control of free markets. His unquenchable thirst for naval strength was matched only by the desire for a Fleet to carry freedom and the accompanying free-market principles to the distant shores to which our ships would sail. While the high-end nation-building cases discussed here are instructive, the aim is to apply the lessons more broadly and less intrusively in the hope of avoiding the regime-change model altogether or, at worst, use it only in the most extraordinary cases. To this point, Mahan strongly advocated an indirect approach, as should the United States today, but acknowledged direct rule may be necessary on some occasions.5
The Royal Navy and Global Governance
Mahan, of course, took his cue from the Royal Navy—which functioned as a venerable arm of the British Home Office—as Britain’s command of the seas served as a catalyst to build governance of foreign lands, peoples, and subsequently, their markets. Britain’s island mercantilist culture fueled the navy’s preeminence and limited the size and effectiveness of her standing army. This set the tone of an empire where, characteristically, a few officers would first win over then govern with and through local leaders.
In essence, the Royal Navy defined British imperialism, which differed from that of Europe’s continental powers because of the limited authority and power of its colonial governments. Britain’s colonies anchored their success to free and effective maritime trade. If not for the Royal Navy’s command of the high seas, its fierce resistance to the continentalists’ colonial expansion, and its more tolerant governing policies, the imperial enterprise may have taken on a wholly different character. Although the English encountered their share of hard cases, scholars like Niall Ferguson and Robert Holland present a sound argument for the relative success of British imperialism at producing sustained, stable societies when compared to the likes of the Dutch, Spanish, and French.6
We should not gloss over the negative consequences of Britain’s imperial past; we must recognize some validity to the contrary view that “while the sun never set, the blood also never dried on the British Empire.”7 Despite this, on balance the Empire was one of conscience.8 It recognized, for instance, the moral error in fueling the slave trade and then acted forcefully to end it. The Royal Navy’s most prevalent legacy, though, was not one of cruelty, but rather the spread of free markets and fair governance.
The service’s actions offer a powerful example of the benefits of nation-building. Officers were expected to be superb diplomats and magistrates, and senior officers were often appointed as governor general. The British brought governance not just to more-developed societies but also to tribal communities. Naval magistrates were unbending on core principles: an independent judiciary, adherence to common law, limited government, and emphatic respect for individual rights. They reinforced the value of colonial education, which greatly outpaced other nations’ colonies. Moreover, they enforced British standards of order, fair play, and decency, prudently exercising authority, most often through native elites and tribal elders. Beyond that, they allowed indigenous peoples to be themselves, often fomenting a famous affection for the local customs and leaders.
Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was known for the administration of justice in the West Indies and was key to ousting the French forces from Egypt, restoring public order, and establishing British rule. The subsequent reforms to state finances restored European confidence in Egypt’s economy. Governance was strengthened further by increasing the number of British advisers to the Egyptian cabinet, which over time led to an increase in the number of British naval officers, irrigation inspectors, judges, and police there. While the overall impact of British imperialism will forever be argued, the Royal Navy’s general competency in many aspects of nation-building operations is difficult to dispute.
The U.S. Navy from the Marianas ...
The same can be said for the U.S. Navy. American naval operations have positively impacted peoples across Central America to the earthquake-torn coasts of Messina, from supporting the Thomasite teachers in the Philippines to empowering the people of the Pacific Islands Trust. From the earliest expeditions of the Quasi War with France to more recent experiences on the rough Afghan terrain, our sailors have battled pirates, benefited those in need, bolstered indigenous capacity, and built nations. It is a common thread woven deeply into the fabric of our naval heritage.
The U.S. Navy’s postwar stewardship of the Pacific Islands Trust offers one of the finest examples of naval nation-building.9 Like the Royal Navy’s reliance on British Common Law as a foundation for governance, the U.S. Navy started by guaranteeing the citizens of the trust their basic freedoms. While naval officials were trained to respect the different cultures of the islands, they nevertheless demanded that the islanders adhere to a universal and non-negotiable Bill of Rights. Their focus was on securing basic rights first and working toward democratic processes—such as voting—second.
While the trust was established under the assumption that “the Islanders would treat the United States military as liberators,” the civil administrators quickly discovered an “attitude of deep reticence” toward U.S. rule.10 This was overcome by meeting the basic needs of the people, and then focusing on rule of law, justice, economic development, education, and public works, which eventually improved local reactions. The trust took direct control of all these areas at first to set the proper example and then establish the conditions for turnover to local control.
Naval administrators rapidly discovered the folly of focusing on indigenous control of the central government. As the premature attempt to establish a unified political structure failed on Truk and Saipan, naval officials there reported that the islanders were “not prepared to cope with the complexities of a centralized government.” Based on these early failures, Admirals Chester Nimitz and Arthur Radford directed their subordinate commanders to focus first on developing effective community councils, which paralleled the tribal structure, prioritizing the transfer of municipal control to the locals and then building the capacity of district authorities. Only after successes at these lower levels did the trust turn its attention to a hand-over of a centralized territorial government. This bottom-up approach succeeded beyond all expectations. Within three years all the trusts’ districts and municipalities had established advisory bodies, to which the United States then gradually granted the authority to govern independently.
All this was done with naval line officers at the helm. Recognizing the gaps in our Navy’s ability to govern, in 1947 Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Nimitz established the School of Naval Administration at Stanford (SONA), which offered a five-month-long program to prepare officers for island civil administration. This course was later moved to the Naval General Line School at Monterey, predecessor to the Naval Postgraduate School. The Navy used SONA graduates to staff a Civil Administrative Unit (CAU), comprised of a civil-military team under the command of a Navy commander titled as the civil administrator, in each district.
The CAUs were split just about half-civilian and half-military, utilizing uniformed capacity for overall leadership, judges, law enforcement, and public works administrators. While the civilian force was mostly teachers, with a few anthropologists and agricultural experts, the importance of these teachers cannot be underestimated. In addition to teaching classes, they established a strong teacher-training program. Under Navy rule, child literacy jumped 80 percent, establishing the foundation for a stably-governed society.
Specially selected Marine Corps non-commissioned officers trained and oversaw district constabularies who acted to enforce the rule of law embodied by the Bill of Rights and criminal code. Legal cases were presided over by Civil Administrative Courts under the direct authority of a Navy judge. He trained and mentored local justices to eventually take his place as he continued to advise to ensure an appropriate, corruption-free standard of judicial conduct. Navy JAGs did an exemplary job, and within two years, indigenous justices presided over half of the 102 community courts as well as eight District courts and the Superior. Within five years, the entire legal, educational, and political system was transferred to local control, making the Naval Administration of the Marianas a resounding success. Admiral Nimitz was a main architect of the CAUs accomplishments and after retirement found himself again embroiled in nation building as the UN Plebiscite Administrator for Kashmir.
... to Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, the emergence of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) mirrored the Navy’s CAUs but in a much more ad hoc fashion. According to the Bohn Agreement, the reconstruction and development phases of Operation Enduring Freedom were to be accomplished by the Afghan government in concert with NATO member development agencies and international non-governmental organizations. Largely unproven, such a development model was bound to fail in war-torn Afghanistan. These organizations simply had neither the depth nor the breadth of development capacity to take on the country’s monumental challenges, especially given its difficult security environment.
In 2002, President Bush nevertheless promised a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, which garnered high expectations among the Afghans. The lack of a permissive environment, specifically in the Pashtun belt of the South and the East, resulted in little to no reconstruction in these key areas. For instance, only a few kilometers of road had been successfully paved in southeastern provinces, and development projects were spread mostly around the main forward operating bases without penetrating deep into the tribal areas. Widespread dissatisfaction with development efforts fomented throughout the Afghan populous. As a result, the U.S. Army decided to establish military-led, joint civil-military teams to expand the legitimacy of the central government to these regions and to enhance security by supporting security-sector reform and facilitating the reconstruction process. The PRT model began to make gains and was gradually expanded throughout Afghanistan; it was then adapted for Iraq.
With the Army civil affairs community—largely a reservists enterprise—essentially spent by 2006, the Joint Chiefs of Staff turned to the Navy and the Air Force to lead its 12 PRTs in Afghanistan. Then-CNO Admiral Mike Mullen hand-selected only post-command or command-selected officers to be PRT commanders. The three-month training program proved effective at teaching basic competencies required for the PRTs to shoot, move, and communicate. The length of the program, however, was insufficient to cover the mission objectives in-depth—despite the effort—as the SONA had during the lead-up to the Marianas Trust.
PRT training improved somewhat over time, but the lack of civilian capacity, especially in terms of educators and lawyers, reduced the effectiveness of the teams’ ability to produce institutions like the CAUs had in the Marianas. Still, several studies have shown that Navy PRTs effectively acted to strengthen governance through improving the delivery of government services, countering corruption, mentoring Afghan officials, and increasing local participation. These gains were also sometimes translated into improved security, depending on the effectiveness of a given team. In 2007, this success prompted U.S. Army General Dan McNeil—then-commander of the International Security Assistance Force—to comment that the Navy had “sent its A-game” to drive the reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan.11
The PRT concept was not always popular among Afghan officials. At a 2011 conference in Germany, Afghan President Hamid Karzai derided the PRTs as “parallel structures” that have “undermined the development of institutions in terms of strength and credibility.”12 This thinly veiled criticism undermined the success of reconstruction teams, which had often acted to credibly block corruption by provincial governors and the subsequent strength of their payoffs to Kabul. By inhibiting corruption and driving local institutions to be roughly functional, PRTs certainly bolstered many Afghan leaders’ credibility.13 They likely would have accomplished more if the United States hadn’t been so focused on avoiding any perception of interfering with Afghan sovereignty. U.S. forces sometimes couldn’t get past an obsession with avoiding corruption, choosing to spend too much time trying to find “honest Afghan leaders” and too little time holding Afghan leaders accountable to act honestly. Navy civil engagements through parallel structures like CAUs and PRTs are good models of how to mentor local leaders and build local capacity.
Modern Conflict and Nation-Building
Our Navy’s notion of nation-building must nevertheless reach beyond our recent experiences in the Middle East. When Admiral Mullen started sending individual augmentees (IA) to support OEF and OIF, he frequently explained that it was not only about helping the other services in a difficult fight, it was also about bringing that experience back to a Navy that would face governance issues across our nation’s global maritime equities. Former CNO Admiral Gary Roughhead later stated that “our Navy is uniquely positioned to help countries at risk build sustainable indigenous capacity.”14 These ideas nevertheless appear to be fading from the Navy’s lexicon. The service’s recent decision to “limit the number of Sailors and Officers it sends to overseas combat operations IA assignments in coming years,” for instance, sends a message that we are starting to move away from civil operations and forgoing opportunities to build leaders who understand that one of the most effective ways to avoid a large-scale fight is to help regimes get their own houses in order by focusing on good external and international governance.15
Shunning nation-building simply cannot survive contact with the realities of modern conflict, a reality President Bush came to understand, noting that “after 9/11, I changed my mind.”16 Bringing peace and stability to Afghans, he explained, “was more difficult than I expected” and constituted the “ultimate nation-building mission.”17 Today, the United States remains engaged in nation-building not only in the Middle East, but also on a smaller scale in places like the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, Colombia, and Mexico. Many of these efforts highlight governance challenges along these nations’ maritime peripheries. The same is true in the Pacific, where states are challenged to leverage international norms, rules, laws, and standards to stave off coercive resolution of entrenched maritime disputes. In all these places, U.S. assistance is essential to helping weaker states secure their territory against thugs, pirates, gangsters, terrorists, and other threats.
While we learn to act in concert with other agencies, only our armed forces have the presence and capacity to lead many of these civil efforts. In many cases, navies are often uniquely suited to the task. Creating Navy foreign area officers is a great start, but these professionals must work in concert with the line communities that will ultimately take command over all aspects of naval operations. To be ready for that, we must revise education and training to provide a broad and inclusive interdisciplinary curriculum that develops every naval officer’s understanding of how to integrate kinetic and non-kinetic situations and to employ maritime means to achieve long-term military, diplomatic, and political ends.
The next step is to shift the focus of our joint systems from one centered on staff assignments to one that values joint operational experience in the field and the Fleet. The more we expose our officers to the execution of joint civil operations—especially those with U.S. governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other partners—the better. In the end, the naval profession must again become a learning one, where to know, understand, and influence cultures is to be able to capture the elusive political nexus in the operational and strategic art of war through every phase of conflict.
All this is not to say that nation-building should be our first priority. The strength of the Royal Navy prior to World War II and of the U.S. Navy since has been our ability—first and foremost—to command the seas. We must take up the CNO’s call to put warfighting first. Yet being skilled in the art of naval war has always meant more than being able to put the enemy on the bottom. Our profession is one that demands the capability to deep-six our adversaries at one minute while acting as diplomats and humanitarians the next. Knowing your adversary is essential to both. While some leaders may be right that our next fight is unlikely to be a counterinsurgency, it is almost certain that the seeds of any conflict—whether with a major power or an irregular enemy—are growing in the ungoverned spaces. By embracing our Navy’s nation-building heritage, we can get at the roots of aggression, avoid a great expense of our sailors’ blood in battle, and ensure long-term strategic success should that ultimate sacrifice be made.
2. Robert Kagan, “Nation Building, Our National Pastime,” The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, 16 October 2011, BR23.
3. Carl H. Builder,The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
4. RADM Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Hawaii and Our Future Sea-power,” The Forum 15 (March 1893): 1–11.
6. See, for instance, Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003), and Robert Holland, Blue-water empire: the British in the Mediterranean since 1800 (London: Allen Lane, 2012).
7. John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London: Bookmarks, 2000).
9. Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, “Report on the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands for the Period of July 1, 1949 to June 30, 1950,” OPNAV P22-100-J, June 1950.
11. COL Sean W. McCaffrey, “Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Regional Command East,” 23 March 2009, www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA498770.
12. Office of the President, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, “Statement By His Excellency Hamid Karzai President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan The International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, Germany,” 5 December 2011, president.gov.af/en/news/5281.
13. See Kevin Maurer, “Fort Bragg soldiers make a difference in Afghanistan,” pulitzercenter.org/articles/fort-bragg-soldiers-make-difference-afghanistan.
14. U.S. Navy, ADM Gary Roughead, “The Navy Vision for Confronting Irregular Challenges,” www.navy.mil/features/iwob.pdf.
15. For example, see ADM Jonathon Greenert, “Statement to Senate Armed Services Committee,” 28 July 2011, www.armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2011/07%20July/Greenert%2007-28-11.pdf.
16. George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010).